31 December 2011

Whoops, there goes another year. Whoops, there goes another pint of beer.*

Time to look back on last New Year's Eve's predictions for 2011:

Multiple Lib Dem defections? Yep.

A Mumsnet Revolution? Nope. But this could be the year if they get the right issue. And they've certainly added to their clout in 2011.

Lobbying scandal? Yep, yep-ish, and sort of.

Successful use of Judicial Reviews? Yep. (And I was wrong to suggest that they are not a legitimate alternative to persuasive campaigning).

Campaign groups emphasising what they're for? Well, I meant that one sarcastically, obviously, so yep, again, in that they mostly remained negative. There were some impressive and positive campaigns, but the most headline-grabbing one, Occupy LSX, was just a big whinge which ended when things got a bit nippy.

So what does next year have in store? I'm only making one prediction. It's a long-shot, but here goes:

This time next year, we'll be living under a Tory minority government.

There's a possible confluence of just enough issues and incidents to make this happen as Cameron is dragged to the right by his Party, and Clegg to the left by his. Starting with Chris Huhne's resignation when the CPS decide to go ahead with prosecution over the alleged transfer of speeding points.

Anyway, time for that beer. We're off to The Wedding Present gig at Dingwalls.

Have a great start to 2012, everyone. Thanks for reading and commenting in 2011. See you after the jump.

*#3 in a series of ongoing attempts to get a title, lyric or reference thereof from every Billy Bragg song into the post titles.

28 December 2011

Mission Accomplished? Why UK Uncut's battle is only just beginning.

The most appropriate quote with which to start this post (covering, as it shall, matters of hubris) is probably the warning given by Harvey Keitel, playing Winston Wolf, in Pulp Fiction:


But what I have been most reminded of in the last few days, by the mutual backslapping amongst Occupy, UK Uncut and their various cheerleaders, is this:


The battling Sunny Hundal has now demanded repentance from those of us who have been less than respectful about UK Uncut's intentions and effectiveness. Apologies are now to be laid at the altar of direct action because the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons has published a report confirming what everyone knew: there is an enormous great load of cash in dispute between Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue, and some large companies. HMRC say a hefty old chunk of this cash is due in tax. The companies disagree.

Campaigners are claiming that this happened because an activist base has, at various times over the last year or so, sat on steps outside St Paul's. Or in shops. Or in banks. Or in Parliament Square. The awareness which this raised has, according to their arguments, led to this unstoppably revolutionary moment: a Parliamentary committee agreeing that there is something to argue about.

Let's leave aside the possible post hoc ergo propter hoc fallaciousness of this. I have never doubted that, to quote Margaret Mead, a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world. Sometimes campaigning and protesting is raindancing. Sometimes it really is the only way to start change. Sometimes it's a complex mixture of both.

However, I would be more willing to accept the UK Uncut/Occupy claims of "Victory!" if they had at any point proposed (or simply foreseen) the crucial role that they now claim PAC is playing.  Indeed, haven't these people spent a great deal of time and rhetoric claiming quite the opposite? Aren't they usually somewhat contemptuous of Parliament and its MPs? Almost, in fact, violently opposed to this sort of democracy? Well, its good to see them falling in with us brainwashed masses who think that national, representative forums are still the best way to address issues.

My second problem is that those blogging a jig over the alleged success either completely ignore the other factors that have made up the campaign, or subvert these factors as secondary to the direct action.

The Guardian's John Harris is particularly at fault here. After three and a half paragraphs of near-religious adulation for Uncut's shop occupations, he blithely mentions the judicial review process, led by the movement's off-shoot, UK Uncut Legal Action.

About this time last year, I unfairly mocked the possibility of campaign groups using judicial reviews. I was wrong to do so. They are a legitimate and effective form of activism. And, alongside the reporting from whistleblowers and other journalistic investigations, have been the real reason why PAC started taking on the issue of the tax disputes - in July. Mr Harris seems to be arguing that the money to support the judicial review process would not have been raised if it were not for the storming of the High Street. That seems a particularly blunt way to fundraise in the age of internet-based, small total, large volume donations. So far, UK Uncut Legal Action has raised £13,000. That's not to be sniffed at but it hardly suggests a mass, sustainable campaign that has brought people with it on their revolutionary journey. 

Not that it matters: the lawyers working for UK Uncut are doing it on a no-win, no-fee basis, anyway. Money may be needed if they lose (not that anyone in Uncut even considers their arguments anything other than 100% correct) but it's not needed at the moment.

So what do we have to show so far for a year and a bit of occupations and demos? A select committee report agreeing that there is an issue (which everyone said there was anyway); and a small amount of money raised (that isn't needed).

Forgive me if I'm not kitting out the cellar with everything needed for a life post-capitalism, quite yet.

But don't be disheartened, Mr Harris and Mr Hundal have other successes to point to. 

First, Sunny is grateful for support from what he believes to be an unusual quarter:
But no one had ever tried to raise public awareness of corporate tax avoidance in this way before, and certainly no one had got the Daily Mail on side on it either. Only UK Uncut managed that.
Any student of media or politics should be wholly unsurprised by the Daily Mail joining in here. It's entire business model is predicated on reducing complex issues to a a single headline or slogan, pushing opinion as fact, ignoring countervailing arguments, and generating mock outrage based on self-generated half-truths. As an old-fashioned lefty sort, I'd be very wary if the Daily Mail took up a campaign of mine. The "new left politics", apparently, revels in it.

Harris goes even further with his welcome to new, supposedly surprising, allies:

First, there is the small matter of Occupy LSX's achievements: sending the Church of England into such a spin that Rowan Williams suddenly had to align it with what he termed "deep exasperation with the financial establishment"; prompting no end of coverage of the byzantine Corporation of London; and playing a huge role in the pushing of a host of issues around equality that began to snowball in the culture from mid-October onwards.
You're kidding, yeah? The time when the CofE could be described as "The Tory Party At Prayer" is long past. In the last 20, arguably 30, years it has jumped on every populist, trendy liberal bandwagon that's passed down Great Smith Street. Especially so under Rowan Williams. Of course, none of this desperate issue-chasing has had anything to do with declining church attendances. Oh, no. They've all been faith critical, of course. Sharia law, Middle East conflict, republicanism, 'broken Britain', positive discrimination, paganism, ecology, international development. Have I missed anything? If I were John Harris, I'd have been worried if Lambeth Palace did not align with UK Uncut and Occupy. But unsurprised when it did.

The point on City of London transparency is a better one and has the potential for a popular, constructive campaign. But just as it was beginning to gain momentum, Occupy overplayed their hand, mixing sensible proposals for local government reform in the Square Mile, with silliness such as a "truth and reconciliation commission" (lack of perspective, much?) and claims the Corporation is above Parliament.

My favourite bit of his eulogy to Occupy, though, is this:
For sure, their self-comparisons to the rebels of Tahrir Square can easily grate.
To which I would only like to add:
For sure, a Guardian journalist's support for anti-tax avoidance campaigns on the pages of a newspaper owned by a company that practises tax avoidance can easily grate, too.
But I digress.

He ends with a call to "highlight failures which are truly systemic" and to promote them to even greater prominence. 

Highlight. More prominence. Yawn. It is way past time for this phase of the campaign.

The danger now for UK Uncut and its network is that even the argument on tax avoidance can still be lost, despite The Great Leap Forward of the PAC report. As the Committee's inquiry progresses, Uncut's targets will have their "day in court". The case for the defence of Vodafone, for example, has been well articulated here (and that's just one example). Nowhere has there been a rebuttal of points such as these. Nowhere has Uncut or Occupy truly engaged with the debate. They repeat - endlessly - their initial positions and beliefs. They offer little by way of constructive argument.

I certainly want to see the promotion of solutions that do more than take us back to a status quo ante. And I want to see an effective vehicle for radical and effective challenges to the mistakes that got us to where we are now.

But, on their current trajectories, neither UK Uncut nor Occupy will be it.

2011 has ended without one cut being reversed, and without any extra tax income being identified and collected. Is there any reason to assume that 2012 will be any different?

But what would I do? (Thank you both for asking).

Occupy: as you were. Seriously, don't change a thing.

Uncut: first, pray for warm weather and hope that Occupy will take advantage and continue the trend for trustafarian urban camping, with all the leaderlessness and nebulousness and general irritatingness that comes with it. That'll give you something to define yourself against from the other side and position yourself as a practical alternative, dealing with the effect of fiscal policy on real people's lives. 

That's the easy bit. To take advantage of that, you'll also have to better reflect the current debate. Maybe start by admitting your own mistakes (e.g. the attack on Barclays in February, which was an unfortunate misunderstanding of how business works, and was very off-putting). Then recognise that alongside the benefits of taxation and public spending, there are also costs (embodied in concepts such as tax incidence and the Laffer curve) and opportunity costs. You could even start discussing what sort of (whisper it) public sector reform could and should be taking place in our post-Credit Crunch world. This will all establish a context for negotiating in from your current unsustainable positions of rejecting each and every cut and wringing every last penny of possible tax from business. 

That's my (before tax) two shekels' worth, anyway. 

In short, the issues are coming of age. It's time UK Uncut were, too.

25 December 2011

The ruling class may oppress them...

...but to really hate the masses, that takes a Guardian reader:
Unlike readers of the Tory-owned press, we take the Guardian for opinions with which we can agree or disagree and make up our own minds based on facts provided elsewhere in the newspaper or other media.
I still find myself rendered speechless by such snobbery, despite it being commonplace amongst the Pretend Left.

07 December 2011

It's tough being a Guardian reader

From yesterday's Guardian letters page and the file marked "First World Problems": 
I put my cashmere elbow in the pot of hummus on the arm of my seat while watching the relay of Rodelinda from the Met last Saturday. There is reason why cinema food is traditionally dry – like popcorn and crisps (Should a cinema be a restaurant too?, G2, 6 December).
I hope some of those so-called anti-poverty campaigners have a whip-round for the dry-cleaning bill.

06 December 2011

Bell Pottinger's "magical" digital reputation team don't know how to use Google

I know it's missing the point about the murky claims made by the Bell Pottinger lobbyists* but as someone who has seen a number of these stings (one from quite close hand) over the last 13 years or so, I found this element particularly puzzling.

Tim Collins described David Wilson's digital reputation management team as "magical". Yet they appear to not be able to use Google properly.

The name of the fake client created by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was the Azimov Group. If you put "Azimov Group" into Google, you get 57 results (at time of writing). Seven of which are links to The Independent story, or news aggregrators or blogs also covering the scoop. One of the pages is what appears to be a failed attempt to set up a page about the group on a Japanese Wikipedia-type site.

The Azimov Group's website is simply a holding page with a name, address and mobile phone number.

Now I know that the schtick was that it was a relatively unofficial, secret, clubby clique of business people. But seriously? Only 50 hits and it didn't start any alarm bells ringing? 

In the age of Wikileaks, Wikipedia and 24-hour crowd-sourced coverage of, well, just about everything, you found just 50 hits about an international investor group with links to a dodgy Central Asian regime and thought, yep, seems like it's all legit and not made up at all.

Ooooh-kay.

*FWIW, I do draw a distinction between what Collins, Richmond and Wilson claimed as an extreme form of marketing, and the actual truth of their influence. But what a way to earn a living. And I say that as somebody who has had a career in this field. Though always, I hope, knew where to draw the line. (Somewhere several thousand miles before cotton harvesting child labourers in Central Asia, by the way).

01 December 2011

Charisma community outraged at omission from BBC #SPOTY nominations.

People with personalities expressed outrage today after the BBC refused to re-open nominations for the 2011 Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY).

Leading figures in the charisma community have demanded that, next year, the public broadcaster casts a wider net amongst those journalists nominating the shorltist of 10.

Storm McDazzle, the editor of Twinkle In The Eye Quarterly, said:
"No one wants to take away from the achievements that this year's top ten have grindingly achieved while not over-stimulating anyone. But when all you have is the likes of people called things like Colin and Brian from little read organs such as Angling News and The Independent picking their favourites, then you're not going to have a very representative list".
Excitey De La Blonde, who was one of the first People-With-Personality to qualify for next year's Olympics, added:
"It's been nearly two decades since anyone who wasn't a monosyllabic, media-trained, yawn-merchant won BBC Sports Personality of the Year. To have no one on the list this time with even the slightest history of alcoholic capery or serial shagging is a major set-back for equality."
12 year-old Jody Rascal, a 12 year-old, has pleaded with the BBC to re-think:
"It's not easy growing up as a Charisma Positive young person interested in sport. We need our role models to help us overcome the prejudices we face from other kids whose parents think Tim Henman is a dangerous iconoclast."
A spokesman for SPOTY favourites, Jonathan Boring and Simon Boring (no relation), was asked for a response. After two Red Bulls and a packet of Pro-Plus, she lifted her head and said "Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."